As the Supreme Court’s session was concluding, the Supreme Court issued Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General, No. 22-174 (June 29, 2023), an opinion that changes the employment landscape as it pertains to religious accommodations for employers and what actually constitutes an “undue hardship.”
In Groff, the Supreme Court held, “Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended] requires an employer that denies a religious accommodation to show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.” (Emphasis supplied.) Although the Court stated it was not overruling previous precedent, this ruling signals a significant shift in how employers must respond to an employee’s request for religious accommodation.
The prior precedent the Court was referring to was its 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, wherein the Court held that, when considering a religious accommodation, an employer cannot “bear more than a de minimis cost.” 432 U.S. 63, 84, 97 S. Ct. 2264, 2277, 53 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1977). Given the reasonably low de minimis standard, most employers and courts applying it to requests for religious accommodations easily denied them, and courts routinely favor the employer’s decision.
The facts of Trans World Airlines and Groff are strikingly similar. In Groff, a United States Postal Services worker, Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian, requested Sundays off for worship and rest. When Groff initially began his employment with the USPS, there was typically no Sunday work. However, the schedule changed when the USPS began facilitating Sunday deliveries for Amazon. Groff then requested a transfer to a rural USPS station that did not have Sunday deliveries. However, as the reach of Amazon grew, that rural station also began Sunday schedules. Groff was unwilling to work on Sundays, and Groff received discipline. Eventually, in 2019, Groff resigned from his position at the USPS.
Likewise, in Trans World Airlines, Larry G. Hardison sued TWA because of a collective bargaining agreement employing a seniority scheduling system. Hardison asked to have Saturdays off because it was the Sabbath. However, TWA said it could not accommodate the request because of the seniority system and other costs. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of TWA because the burden on TWA to grant the request would be more than de minimis holding:
[A]bandonment of the seniority system, to require TWA to bear additional costs when no such costs are incurred to give other employees the days off that they want would involve unequal treatment of employees on the basis of their religion. By suggesting that TWA should incur certain costs in order to give Hardison Saturdays off the Court of Appeals would in effect require TWA to finance an additional Saturday off and then to choose the employee who will enjoy it on the basis of his religious beliefs.
Trans World Airlines, 432 U.S. at 84.
With its decision in Groff, the Supreme Court stated that this was the “Court’s first opportunity in nearly 50 years to explain the contours of Hardison.” In the Syllabus of the Court’s opinion, it stated:
Even though Hardison’s reference to “de minimis” was undercut by conflicting language and was fleeting in comparison to its discussion of the “principal issue” of seniority rights, lower courts have latched on to “de minimis” as the governing standard. To be sure, many courts have understood that the protection for religious adherents is greater than “more than . . . de minimis” might suggest when read in isolation. But diverse religious groups tell the Court that the “de minimis” standard has been used to deny even minor accommodations.
Accordingly, the Court shifted its perspective and stated that showing more than a de minimis cost, as that phrase is used in common parlance, no longer suffices to establish an undue hardship. Rather, the Supreme Court stated that the Trans World Airlines decision should be read in more context, where an “accommodation is not required when it entails ‘substantial’ ‘costs’ or ‘expenditures.’” Accordingly, “an employer may be required to bear costs and make expenditures that are not ‘substantial.’”
The Supreme Court made no bright-line decisions and stated that the undue hardship analysis is a “fact-specific inquiry.” However, the Supreme Court cited two amicus briefs listing problems with the previous de minimis test: (1) Muslim women wearing religiously mandated attire who lost employment opportunities such as at public schools, law enforcement agencies, and youth rehabilitation; and (2) not accommodating Sabbath observance requests because of the “coworkers’ goodwill.”
Since both Title VII and the American Disabilities Act (“ADA”) contain “undue hardship” standards for employers when responding to accommodation requests, the Court also discussed the undue hardship standard in the context of ADA. It stopped short, however, of adopting the ADA’s “undue hardship” disability accommodation standard, noting that it would come up with its own standard since the ADA requires an employer to show “significant difficulty or expense” in denying a disability accommodation request. However, the Court held that “courts should resolve whether a hardship would be substantial in the context of an employer’s business in the commonsense manner that it would use in applying any such test.” It also declined to rubberstamp the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations that define “undue hardship,” noting the regulations are generally “sensible.”
Employer Takeaways: For employers, Groff has a broad-reaching impact as it changes a 50-year standard under which employers must evaluate requests for accommodations, including that they must consider all facts surrounding an employee’s request for a religious accommodation when deciding whether the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship.” The Court held that showing “more than a de minimis cost,” as that phrase had been used in common parlance, does not suffice to meet the necessary “undue hardship” under Title VII to deny an employee a religious accommodation. As such, employers must take into account all of the unique facts in a request for religious accommodation: size of business, expense in implementing the request, reasonable alternatives, effect it would have on the other employees, etc. However, the Court did note that the Title VII reasonable accommodation standard is still below the ADA’s, but higher than a de minimis standard. As circuit courts start issuing their interpretation of Groff, this new standard will become clearer.
Finally, it is important to note that, while Groff addressed “undue hardship,” nothing about Groff changes the legal requirement that an employee’s religious belief be “sincerely held.”
About the Author
Adrian Acosta is an associate in the El Paso, Texas office at Dickinson Wright. He is licensed in Texas, New Mexico, and Michigan and assists clients in all areas of employment litigation, including discrimination, workers’ compensation, and wage and hour. Adrian conducts workplace investigations and provides compliance training to different industries. Adrian can be reached at (915) 541-9326 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adrian’s business biography is found here.